Mourning Becomes Justice

Guest post by Michelle Brown

This is the irony or paradox. Political resistance could kill you, well actually the state could in response to your resistance, but the beloved community could save you. Not from physical death. Nothing would do that, not even god. But from meaningless death and despair. One does not negotiate with the state’s use of terror, violent and premature death (actual physical death or disappearance through incarceration). One opposes it and in that opposition finds meaning in black suffering.

– Joy James, “Black Suffering in Search of the ‘Beloved Community’”

Criminal justice in the United States is a project that intersects with race and mortality at every intersection. In laying out this claim, of course, I have the killing of Michael Brown in mind and recent events and actions in Ferguson, Missouri. I also situate this present moment within the growing historical record of patterned, racialized state killing. I mean to point to a kind of disturbance that is foundational, ordinary, routine: Mass incarceration and capital punishment are produced through a host of everyday discretionary decision-making and institutional practices that make up criminal justice, creating the conditions for premature death, like that of Michael Brown. To name only a few of these (and to engage them superficially at best), consider the following:

A community suffering these forces in cumulative must do extraordinary, impossible work to maintain the conditions of life. When we talk about any one criminal justice issue, news event, case, sentence, practice, or policy, we inevitably overlook this totalizing force of law upon the lives of its subjects. We obscure the very fabric of life and death within a carceral regime. Judith Butler provides us with one starting point for thinking through what attention to that life might mean.

Perhaps most importantly, . . . we would have to rethink the ‘right to life’ where there is no final protection against destruction, and where affirmative and necessary social bonds compel us to secure the conditions for livable lives, and to do so on egalitarian grounds. This would imply positive obligations to provide those basic supports that seek to minimize precariousness in egalitarian ways: food, shelter, work, medical care, education, rights of mobility and expression, protection against injury and oppression . . . . Further, the very idea of precariousness implies dependency on social networks and conditions, suggesting that there is no “life itself” at issue here, but always and only conditions of life, life as something that requires conditions in order to become livable life and, indeed, in order to become grievable (2009: 22-23).

Grievable life, when recognized as such, demands an address of the conditions of life. And its loss demands a work of mourning, one that produces an utterance directed at the need, the cry for new and alternative meanings, for conditions and justice otherwise. Forms of mourning have the potential to raise the agonizingly difficult questions of what makes new worlds possible. Other forms of mourning lay claim to loss for symbolic purposes, ultimately disacknowledging life and marking it as (fore)closed, criminal, ungrievable. This kind of racial hierarchical structuring is, for philosopher Michel Foucault, the distinctive province of the state who holds the “the ability to make live and let die” (2003: 243). If Tennessee moves forward with scheduled executions, if state officials continues to clamor for the return of the electric chair, if they continue to criminalize numerous vulnerable groups and communities, against social science and the lives of its citizens, the state knowingly extends landmark precedents committed to death. When Ruth Gilmore defines racism then as ‘the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death’” (2006: 28), as a criminologist, I cannot distinguish her explanation from American criminal justice.


Butler, Judith. Frames of war: When is life grievable?. London: Verso, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, Ed. Bertani, Mauro and Fontana, Alessandro. New York: Picador, 2003.

Gilmore, R. W. Golden Gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

James, Joy. Seeking the Beloved Community: A Feminist Race Reader. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013.

Michelle Brown is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Tennessee.  She is the author of The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society, and Spectacle (New York University Press, 2009).


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